Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
John 20:1 (Holman) On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
Magdala, a small town by the Sea of Galilee, was famous for fishing, boat building, wealth, and depravity. This latter trait had a devastating effect on its most famous citizen.
Mary sided with the wrong crowd, began a downward slide, and eventually became possessed by seven demons. Her life became a continuous tragedy, but one day a man looked into her soul, and cast seven demons out of her (Luke 18:2).
She devoted the rest of her life to Him. She followed Jesus in His travels, ministering to Him out of her own substance (Matthew 27:55-56). She endured the agony of seeing her Benefactor be tried as a criminal and sentenced to death.
It was a brave thing to show continual love to a crucified man. This is what Mary did. She had to be near Jesus. Her life had become nothing more or less than a pure spiritual romance of devoted love to the Nazarene. While all the disciples except John fled in terror, she stood by the cross, and then followed Joseph and Nicodemus to see where Jesus was buried (John 19:25; Mark 15:47).
On Saturday, she “remembered the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” But as Sunday dawned, she took the first opportunity to visit Jesus’ tomb. It was still dark, there had been an earthquake that morning (Matthew 28:2), and unfriendly Roman soldiers were guarding the tomb (Matthew 27:66).
Despite the danger, Mary could not be deterred. Though the object of her love was deemed a criminal, she could not forget Him. He had rescued her from seven demons, and she had to do something. Little could be done now, but at least she could still show love. By bringing spices and shedding tears she can show that this despised, rejected man was still an object of love.
Her mission of mercy quickly became a nightmare of horror. The crucifixion had been agony enough, but now foul violators had snatched away the most sacred thing she could conceive. His body was gone. His enemies wouldn’t even allow Him a decent burial. It was a blow hard enough to make the bravest heart totter.
John 20:2 So she ran to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!”
Horrified, she did all she knew to do. She ran for help. Her flight brought her to Jesus’ two best friends. It is good to see Peter and John together. John’s loving heart made it easy for him to forgive Peter’s shameful denial of the Master.
Peter had accented his denial with cursing. He knew if he cursed, no one would accuse him of being a friend of Jesus. The same is still true today. Peter had fallen into cowardice, but when he began climbing back up, John was there to welcome him. The reconciliation was good. They needed each other now.
John 20:3-5 At that, Peter and the other disciple went out, heading for the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and got to the tomb first. Stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying there, yet he did not go in.
Startled at Mary’s horrifying report, Peter and John did all they knew to do. They ran to the tomb to see for themselves. They took off, seeing which one could reach the sepulcher first. John, fleeter of foot, won love’s race, but was too timid to enter the tomb. He had seen Jesus die, “smitten of God.” He knew the Lord’s mutilated body had been placed inside this tomb. Reverence held him back.
John 20:6a Then, following him, Simon Peter came also, and entered the tomb . . .
John outran Peter, but Peter outdared John. John looked without entering. Peter entered without looking. Impetuous Peter did not hesitate at all. This was his chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the disciples. Someone had to take charge. Impulsive Peter would lead the investigation. He immediately rushed into the tomb, and saw something that left him with a sense of wonder (Luke 24:12).
John 20:6b-7 . . . and saw the linen cloths lying there. The wrapping that had been on His head was not lying with the linen cloths but was folded up in a separate place by itself.
The body was gone, but grave clothes had been left in an orderly fashion. The small cloth used to cover Jesus’ face had been carefully folded and laid aside. The tomb displayed the decorum of Divine dignity. The atmosphere was serene, perfectly calm. It looked like someone had risen from bed after a night’s rest.
It was time to draw possible conclusions. Could friends maybe have come and taken the body elsewhere? No, Jesus could not have had a better grave. Also, no friend would have shamed the Lord by carrying away His unclothed body.
Maybe grave-robbers were the culprits? No, they would have rather taken the linens than the body, especially since these linens were fine and new (Mark 15:46). Also, thieves don’t set things right before they leave. Their mark is chaos.
Could this be ruffians who wanted to further desecrate Jesus’ body? No, they would not have taken time to arrange things neatly. They would have snatched their prey and run. Grave-clothes would have been removed elsewhere.
The whole scene was perplexing. The body had been removed in an orderly way, with no signs of haste or fear. Peter, awe-struck, could not figure it out.
John 20:8 The other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, then entered the tomb, saw, and believed.
Peter’s boldness made John venture farther. He stepped inside and mentally photographed the tomb’s interior. Sixty years later, when he wrote this account, the sight was still vivid in his mind. He, too, saw the linens and the napkin folded neatly nearby, saw no traces of haste, and had to draw some conclusions. Friends? No. Grave-robbers? No. Ruffians? No. Then who? Who? Who?
A thousand questions were simultaneously whirling through his mind. Who would leave behind grave-clothes as if to say He would never need them again? In a cold and barren tomb, who would give methodical attention to little details?
Who would hate to leave a borrowed tomb untidy? Who would leave behind order in the land of confusion? Who does everything “decently and in order”?
Who would leave behind a napkin for His loved ones to use to dry their weeping eyes? That napkin had been lovingly placed on the Savior’s face as the last touch of a love that had been faithful to Him in death. Now this symbol of love was reverently folded, as if someone had appreciated the love and respected it.
Something began to stir in John. His mind, charged with divine electricity, was receiving a flash of inspiration. “What if? Could it be?” Mary had said, “They have taken Him.” What if it is not “they,” but “He”? Is it possible He did for Himself what He did for Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the widow’s son?”
Assessing the data, John made a bold verdict based on the evidence. Jesus was alive! What John saw in the tomb was just like Jesus. John recognized His style as easily as we recognize the handwriting of a friend. This is John’s highest glory. He was the first to believe Jesus had risen. Mary was the first to see the risen Christ, but John was the first to believe.
Peter penetrated the tomb first. John penetrated faith first. His faith was weak, but real nonetheless. Love, always the best interpreter, gave John eyes to see and a mind to understand. Love understands when intellect is left groping.
Peter wondered, John understood. As Earth’s solar light was rising at the horizon, John perceived the world’s spiritual light had risen in this tomb.
John knew he was standing on holy ground. Joseph’s tomb had become a sanctuary, history’s greatest and smallest cathedral. This grave would now be the spring from which salvation flows, the cradle of everlasting life. Here Jesus had conquered death, and had left behind His grave-clothes as trophies of His victory.
Contemplate these deserted grave-clothes and find consolation there. Jesus left them behind forever. He never appeared to anyone in them. He never reclaimed them. He arose never to die again and therefore needed them no more.
He went from rags of death to robes of glory. We are invited to share His glory. If we receive Jesus, we share His victory. If Jesus is not in a tomb, then He is here in this room, and can live in our hearts. For those who know Jesus, the grave is not a dungeon dark and drear. For believers, the tomb is no longer the foyer of Hell, but the vestibule of Heaven.